The Moral Saint Fallacy

The Comedy of Conation

Louis CK often discusses moral issues in his comedy.  In his recent special “Live at the Beacon Theater” he claims to have lots of moral beliefs, but admits that he “lives by none of them.”  In fact, he says he derives a selfish pleasure from simply holding these beliefs, without ever feeling obligated to act on them.

In this example, Louis illustrates moral sensitivity by identifying a recurring  moral problem.  When traveling on a plane, Louis flies first class.  But he often sees military personnel in uniform flying in coach.  He knows the soldiers are more deserving of a first class seat than he is.  So, he thinks to himself, “I should really give up my seat, and trade with this soldier.”  In his case, he makes the moral judgement that one seating arrangement is more fair than another.

Louis’ example demonstrates the difference between moral cognition (thinking) and moral conation (acting). In the Figure below, sensitivity and judgment are both cognitive activities, but the conative activities also require moral motivation (how much you value resolution of a particular moral problem compared to the personal cost of the solution) and lastly moral action.  While Louis CK has mastered the cognitive aspects of morality, he admits to lacking both the motivation and the moral courage necessary to act.

Figure from Hannah ST, Avolio BJ, May DR. 2011. Moral maturation and moral conation: A capacity approach to explaining moral thought and action. Academy of Management Review. 36(4):663-685

What makes Louis exceptional is that he is willing to admit this failing.  As he states in his comedy special, he is “not a good person,” although he likes the idea of being one.

Most people overestimate their own capacity to act on what they know to be the right thing.  When asked, they may profess certainty about how they would behave in a certain hypothetical situation, but when actually given the opportunity, they fail the same conative tests that Louis does.  We call this phenomenon the “Moral Saint Fallacy.” It describes the tendency for most people to overestimate their own moral motivation and moral courage. (The “moral saint” concept originates with the philosopher Susan Wolf.)

Recent controversies in banking, business, sports, politics, and higher education call into question the moral fabric of modern America.  And yet, it is all too easy for writers and readers to morally condemn the failings of people caught in high profile scandals. Unlike the judged, those who cast metaphorical stones are unlikely to find themselves facing analogous moral scrutiny.  Although the ubiquitous presence of video cameras and social networking can amplify any moral failing, only in rare instances are individuals able to glean their own moral lessons from the vicarious experiences gained through the media.

For example, the show What Would You Do asks the question, “Can you live up to the moral ideals by which you judge others?”  This clip dramatizes real-life instances that illustrate The Bystander Effect.  As the show producers  increase the moral distance between the actor pretending to be injured and the passersby, the bystanders become less and less likely to offer assistance — until finally the memory of watching news coverage of a real incident, combined with the pleadings of another woman that may identify with the injured more strongly, finally inspires one woman to act.

Ideals, Action and Education

It is curious… that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.   — Mark Twain

Lost in the public cross-examination of moral failings is a critique of ethics education.  Much of ethics revolves around discussion of fictionalized case studies like those dramatized on the What Would You Do? show.  They typically feature contrasts in moral character by creating exaggerated caricatures of “bad apples” and “good whisteblowers.”  With the wisdom of hindsight and the authority of professional codes and meta-ethical theories, most students can easily write self-righteous essays critiquing the actions of others, while pledging allegiance to ideals they believe they will never be tested on in real life.  But in the rare cases where learning exercises actually ask students to act on their ideals, they often fail.  This gap between ideals and action suggests that the typical mode of ethics education exaggerates the importance of moral cognition at the expense of understanding the obstacles to moral conation.  In fact, moral action is mitigated by several circumstances that may be beyond the control of the individual.

Surveys taken in our classrooms indicate that our students largely conceive of themselves as having unquestionably moral character.  However, when we place them in game situations where each is incentivized to increase his or her own grade at the expense of other students, we typically find students exhibit behavior that repudiates their self-professed moral beliefs.  While it is true that we’ve recently noticed a shift away from the selfish, egocentric trends that researchers say characterize the Millennial Generation, there nevertheless is an evident gap between moral ideals and a willingness to take moral action.

The story of a recent student exemplifies our point.  To keep this person anonymous, we’ll use the mythological pseudonym Ariadne.  For the sake of convenience, we’ll refer to Ariadne as ‘she,’ but this isn’t necessarily any indication of the student’s actual gender.

In class, Ariadne made strong arguments for her moral positions and jeered those who acted immorally.  But in actual game play, when the temptation was strong, she abandoned her ideals and took more points for herself.  In one instance, Ariadne accepted a high grade at the expense of classmates who were treated unfairly in a game when the rules were obviously rigged.  Even when Ariadne had the opportunity to correct the injustice by sharing her grade points with others who had been treated unfairly, she declined.

To Ariadne’s credit, she realized that she had behaved poorly and she experienced remorse.  After class, she approached the Instructor and  privately proposed giving the aggrieved students some of her ill-gotten points confidentially.  But later in a different game, she behaved exactly the same way.

This time, the Instructor subjected her reparations proposal to a class vote.  In this case, even the students who admired and liked her refused to let her off the hook.  They felt it would be too easy to let her continue to do irresponsible things in one moment, and work to absolve herself of guilt later on.  They insisted she live with the knowledge of what she did and the internalized emotions appropriate to that failing.  This wasn’t spite or Schadenfreude. They wanted to encourage moral growth—the growth that comes from learning how easily one can slip away from moral ideals.

The moral saint fallacy thus obviously impedes ethics education.  Instructors who don’t challenge it fail to give students adequate tools for closing the gap between moral cognition and moral conation.  Students who graduate with this background are primed to enter professions with skewed perceptions of themselves and others.  And, they can be expected to have a difficult time appreciating the complexities at stake.

The Case of Lt. Pike: Action and Expectation

The next clip recalls a infamous example of digital pillory (or cyberstoning).  At its zenith, the Occupy Wall Street movement spawned sympathetic sit-ins or “occupy” protests at cities and college campuses throughout the United States.   A confrontation between protesters and campus police at the University of California – Davis was especially well documented.  In this video, UC-Davis Police Lieutenant John Pike is shown wielding a can of pepper spray.  He first makes a show of displaying the can to onlookers, and then dispassionately discharges the pepper spray directly into the faces of the sitting students.

Moral condemnation of Pike was instantaneous, as the crowd chants “Shame on you! Shame on you!”  But Pike could not possibly have imagined how the subsequent digital backlash would become its own meme via social networking.

Even UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, no stranger to campus protest, publicly denounced Pike.  But the UC-Davis Chief of Police, herself relieved of her duties and subsequently forced into early retirement, offers a more complicated account of the officer’s culpability, suggesting that the officers at the scene were doing the “best they can.”

While we can agree that Pike should have refused to pepper spray non-violent students, condemnation of him and other officers on the scene as morally deficient ignores the situational forces that exerted influence on their behavior.  If we are willing to judge the moral character of Pike, then fair play requires we must also be willing to judge ourselves.  Doing this requires us to acknowledge that be are not moral super heroes who are immune to external pressures.

Normal people lack the moral motivation or the moral courage of religious martyrs.  However, most people are biased to see themselves in the best light possible–an idealization unfortunately reinforced, for the reasons mentioned above, by traditional ethics education.

But how much motivation and courage should we actually expect from people?  While hypocrisy can be the sign of bad character, lots of complications can serve as mitigating circumstances.  Moreover, there is a difference between doing what morality requires of us and going above and beyond.  Philosophers refer to the latter as supererogation. “Roughly speaking, supererogatory acts are morally good although not (strictly) required.

In an article for The Atlantic, called “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. Pike“, Alexis Madrigal expresses sympathy for Pike, given the influence of the structures that shaped his choices, including a shift in how the police are trained to respond to protesters. According to Madrigal, expectations have evolved through three different paradigms: “escalated force” (pre 1970s), “negotiated management” (1970s to 1990s), and “strategic incapacitation” (current), whichs calls for an “unprecedented show of (police) force” when responding to non-violent protest.  He argues that Pike is merely another casualty in a  system that trained him to respond as he did.

This appeal to mitigating circumstances didn’t sit well with everyone. In a notable instance, Mark Bosquet wrote a reply in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sympathy for Eichmann?” comparing Madrigal’s analysis of Pike to an unduly sympathetic portrayal of the infamous Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann, who orchestrated the exportation of millions of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps, and inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil“.  Arendt described the typical Nazi not as an incredible moral monster, but an ordinary bureaucrat who rationalized acts by following orders. While this might be descriptively true, Bosquet contends that Madrigal misses Arendt’s normative point — that sympathizing with people like Pike only makes us feel better about our own complicities, and reinforces in us our own Moral Saint Fallacy. As Bosquet sees it, reading Madrigal allows us to say to ourselves:

I serve the system in some ways too, but I’d never do what that guy does!

Bosquet accuses Pike (and the hundreds of other officers who have behaved as he did in response to similar protests) of choosing “obedience and the warm praise of their masters, and the material rewards of their complicity.”

Moral Conation and Obstacles to Action

It is easy to see where Bosquet is coming from. If people are let off the hook for doing things they should be held accountable for, justice is violated. But is that really the case here?  Let’s assume for the moment that Lt. Pike could recognize the moral problem with spraying non-violent protesters (thus exhibiting moral sensitivity).   He nevertheless was required to make moral judgments about the relative merits of his obligation to duty (in Bosquet’s language, “obedience”) versus the moral principle of non-violence.

Consider that Katehi had ordered the police to remove the protesters, who were encamped illegally.  While Katehi never specifically authorized the use of pepper spray, Pike likely believed his job was to devise the best way to carry out those orders, and that using pepper spray was safer than simply attempting to wrestle the protesters off the site.  Thus, Pike was bound by duty to consider all available options to uphold the law.

Moreover, if it had occurred to Pike to question Katehi’s orders (given the level of resistance exhibited by the protesters, and the necessity of violence to achieve Katehi’s objective), then he faced a conative dilemma.  With regard to moral motivation, Pike must know to what extent he should value the students’ rights to self-expression and freedom from violence, over the risks to himself and fellow officers should he fail to fulfill his duty.  A refusal to remove the protesters would have required extraordinary moral courage, given the expectation he likely felt from his fellow officers (with whom he is undoubtedly more closely bonded) that he should act in accordance with his orders to remove the students while protecting the safety of those officers that report directly to him.

That is, even if Pike believed that pepper-spraying the students was wrong, he may have been unable to actually act on those beliefs, given the circumstances in which he was embedded.

Understanding Pike’s dilemma changes the rhetorical question of What Would You Do? to something like, “What could we reasonably have expected Pike to do?”  Could we really have expected Pike to take a different moral stand at the scene?  Defying his Chancellor?  Breaking ranks with his colleagues, as he no doubt thought refusal would have required him to do?

To expect Pike to act differently would be to require of him a moral fortitude that none but the most courageous among us could have possibly exhibited.

The internal affairs investigation eventually concluded that Lt. Pike did act reasonably, and recommended a suspension or a demotion at worst.

He was fired anyway.

Categories: by Evan Selinger, by Thomas P Seager | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

About Evan Selinger

Evan Selinger is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction, and Creativity (MAGIC). He’s also a Fellow at The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology and serves on the Advisory Board of The Future of Privacy Forum. Evan’s research primarily addresses ethical issues concerning technology, science, the law, expertise, and sustainability. A prolific academic author, Evan also cares deeply about public engagement and regularly writes for popular magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including: Wired, The Atlantic, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Salon, CNN, Bloomberg Opinion, Forbes, and Huffington Post.

6 thoughts on “The Moral Saint Fallacy

  1. I don’t think it was merely his actions that caused the atrocity. I think a system that expects officers to pepper spray people and violate their constitutional rights is fundamentally flawed, but I guess that is what protests are for. Without the negative publicity, I highly doubt he would have been fired. The reasons someone does something wrong (hurting someone not in self defense), does not change the fact that it is-wrong. I guess there is some justice, it just has to be fought for (intelligently and peacefully).

    • U bring up an excellent point! The purpose of non-violent civil disobedience is to provoke disproportionate responses exactly like this, thereby publicizing and generating sympathy for the movement. So in a way, Pike’s actions played right into the hands of the protesters.

      Unfortunately, it’s not clear to me what change the protesters wanted from the UCDavis administration, which might be why Chancellor Katehi looks so bewildered in so most of the videos about her meetings with the protesters!

  2. Should Pike have been fired? Should we even say that he shouldn’t have pepper sprayed them because we may not have had the courage to not pepper spray them? They said he did as he was trained and now he has been made into a scapegoat. What about the Chancellor? She gave the orders but she is in a much more powerful position than former Lt. Pike. She apologized in the following link but what responsibility did she actually take in terms of action. .

    It’s a little tougher to force her out than him. Just like it’s tougher to police banks that control the country’s finances. Is this acceptable?

    • Chancellor Katehi wants to be judged on the basis of her intent, but she fired Pike on the basis of his outcome.

      Would she have accepted from Pike the apology that she wants students to accept from her?

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